Top Lawmakers Warn Against Private Equity Firm's .Org Takeover

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A group of U.S. lawmakers on Monday raised concerns about the proposed sale of the .org top-level domain to a private equity firm by the organisation created to manage it, a deal that has drawn significant scrutiny from digital rights groups and nonprofits since it was first announced last month.

ICANN, the nonprofit responsible for managing all domain names on the internet, announced in November that Public Internet Registry (PIR), which maintains the .org domains, would be acquired by Ethos Capital, a private equity firm founded in 2019.

In a letter obtained by Gizmodo to ICANN, PIR, and Ethos on Monday, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, and Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Anna Eschoo said the response to the sale had been “resoundingly negative” and that nonprofit organisations in the United States who’ve historically made .org their home.

“If they disagree with ISOC’s decision to sell .ORG to Ethos Capital, their only option is to move to a different domain, a move that can be quite costly for most organisations,” the letter says.

It continues:

.ORG is not just another domain, and it is not just a digital asset that can be sold to the highest bidder. As PIR itself notes on its website, a .ORG domain “can serve as a powerful signal that your site serves a greater good — rather than just a bottom line.” Control over .ORG must therefore serve the public interest. The registry that controls .ORG must provide reliable and affordable domain services to nonprofits. It must protect the free-speech rights of all users, even for those with unpopular viewpoints that governments or corporations may not like. At the same time, it must protect internet users from phishing, malware and denial-of-service attacks.

Of chief concern is that Ethos Capital will have the power to censor .org websites in response to claims of trademark infringement and raise prices whenever it likes.

While Ethos Capital and PIR have made commitments publicly to keep .org “accessible and reasonably priced,” the letter says, it remains “unclear how effective these commitments will be in ensuring accountable stewardship of .ORG.”

The letter includes more than a half-dozen questions, such as whether PIR and ICANN will commit to additional transparency around the deal. It further asks the organisations how they’ll go about ensuring price hikes for .org domains are reasonable “and reviewed by the nonprofit community the registry serves”.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the largest digital-rights organisations in the United States, called on the president and CEO of the Internet Society, Andrew Sullivan, to halt the sale. (PIR was formed by the Internet Society in 2002.)

“Decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader,” the EFF said. “If the Internet Society (ISOC) can no longer be that leader, it should work with the NGO community and [ICANN] to find an appropriate replacement.”

The EFF letter was cosigned by a large contingent of nonprofits, including the Open Source Imitative, the Tor Project, Public Citizen, and Girl Scouts of the USA.

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